UPDATE: Missouri House members mull ban on international laws

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 | 11:22 p.m. CDT; updated 7:10 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 9, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — A man who described himself as a former member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Muslim Brotherhood said he supports a Missouri proposal to bar courts from considering international law or Sharia, which is the Islamic religious law.

Kamal Saleem told a Missouri House committee on Wednesday that Sharia law limits free speech rights and can require harsh penalties. Saleem, who is now Christian, operates a ministry. He testified Wednesday by telephone, which is unusual because witnesses who testify before Missouri legislative committees generally speak in person.

"Freedom of speech, pursuit of happiness, freedom of thought — these are illegal in Islam because they are death. Those who practice those things, they are commanded to die by the sword of Islam because they are anti-Sharia law," Saleem said. "In Islam, you cannot think or have your own freedom."

Saleem has spoken publicly before, including in 2008 at the Air Force Academy at a forum titled "Dismantling Terrorism." That forum with two other men generated controversy, and some professors have questioned the men's accounts about their background. The Air Force has said the three men had been checked out by Air Force intelligence and are genuine.

Numerous states have considered restrictions on using international law. Last November, voters in Oklahoma approved a constitutional amendment banning the use of Sharia law in state courts, but that measure has since been challenged in federal court.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has criticized similar restriction proposals elsewhere, saying Sharia is a guide to Islamic religious practice.

John Bowen, a professor and expert on Islam at Washington University in St. Louis, told The Kansas City Star that Sharia is a set of interpretations of Islamic scripture and not a specific legal code. Bowen said some countries have applied the interpretations in formal laws and some Muslim communities have set up Sharia councils to handle marriages and the settling of estates, which have a religious component.

He said courts generally have been reluctant when people raise religious issues in legal proceedings.

Missouri's proposal would amend the state constitution and direct the courts not to look at legal precepts of other nations or cultures, specifically instructing judges not to consider international or Sharia law.

Rep. Don Wells, R-Cabool, who's sponsoring the measure, said Sharia law can be oppressive, particularly toward women. Wells said courts in the U.S. should not consider laws crafted overseas, but he pointed out that he's not opposed to Muslims and that an aide and a family member are Islamic.

Some critics said the proposed constitutional amendment was offensive, and others warned of possible unintended consequences such as making it harder for Missouri businesses to enter contracts with firms from other countries.

John Chasnoff, the program director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, said the measure likely is unconstitutional because it singles out one religion.

"As a matter of policy too, we think it's a mistake to discriminate against one religion," Chasnoff said.

Rep. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, said the measure was worrisome, partly because he said it focused on one religion.

Asked by Kander if he was sympathetic to people who were offended by the proposal, Wells said: "Honestly, if they're Americans, I don't know why they would find it offensive. This is to protect the people of America."

The House committee also considered legislation that would restrict the use of international law in Missouri, without referencing Sharia law. Under that bill, court and arbitration decisions would be void if they are based on a foreign legal code that does not offer the same protections as the Missouri and U.S. constitutions.

"American law is for American courts," said Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, the measure's sponsor. "And we'll still recognize foreign laws, we'll still recognize foreign legal codes or legal systems. But if and only if those laws or legal systems should deprive one of our citizens of their fundamental, constitutionally protected rights, at that point we will not recognize that part."

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